Asia shares slip, US dollar rises on flight to safety

Japan's Nikkei stumbled 1.8 per cent while South Korea's Kospi slipped 0.5 per cent.
Japan's Nikkei stumbled 1.8 per cent while South Korea's Kospi slipped 0.5 per cent.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Asian shares hit a two-week low on Wednesday (March 24), oil weakened further and the dollar neared four-month highs as coronavirus lockdowns in Europe and potential US tax hikes hit risk appetite, leading to a flight to safety.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside of Japan was off 1 per cent after falling 0.9 per cent on Tuesday. It went as low as 676.46 points, a level last seen on March 9.

The index has had a disappointing run in March after five straight months of gains, as risk assets were earlier spooked by fears inflation will pick up at a faster-than-expected pace led by successful coronavirus vaccine rollouts and massive US fiscal stimulus.

Japan's Nikkei stumbled 1.8 per cent while South Korea's Kospi slipped 0.5 per cent. Chinese shares were in the red for a second day with the blue-chip CSI300 index down 1.2 per cent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng skidded 1.7 per cent.

Singapore's Straits Times Index was down 0.04 per cent at 10.46am local time.

On Wall Street overnight, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.94 per cent, the S&P 500 lost 0.76 per cent and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 1.12 per cent.

"The combination of increasing lockdowns in much of Europe, and some risk reduction in the EM space, led to a risk-off day where Treasuries rallied on the back of a flight-to-quality bid," John Briggs, global head of strategy for NatWest wrote in a note to clients.

Germany extended its lockdown to April 18. A US health agency said the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine developed with Oxford University may have included outdated information in its data, further fueling investor concerns over the recovery.

"So unlike the day before, the reduction in risk appetite was the driver today, which also led to broad based USD strength in a flight-to-quality move, not just against EM but also against most of the majors," Briggs added.

Adding to investor woes, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress on Tuesday the US economy remained at risk.

In currencies, the dollar index approached a four-month top of 92.506 against a basket of most major currencies.

The euro edged toward a four-month trough below US$1.18355 - trading as low as US$1.18360 - after Germany extended its lockdown. The safe-haven yen was broadly stronger, and Australia's dollar - considered a liquid proxy for risk - weakened further on Wednesday.

Benchmark 10-year notes rose 19/32 in price to yield 1.6153 per cent after Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell downplayed the risk of inflation.

US manufacturing data was due later on Wednesday and Powell was expected to give the same prepared testimony to a Senate banking panel.

The flight to safety hit commodity prices, though oil prices edged higher on Wednesday as investors looked for bargains. Gains were capped, however, as lockdowns in Europe and a build in US crude stocks curbed risk appetite and raised oversupply fears.

Brent crude futures fell 16 cents to US$60.62 a barrel, after tumbling 5.9 per cent and hitting a low of US$60.50 on Tuesday. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures slipped 21 cents to US$57.55, having lost 6.2 per cent the previous day.